This is the short sermon I gave today at Putney Methodist Church (18 October, 2020). It was our first family service since the beginning of the year, and I gave this reflection while the children were making very realistic fake wounds, which we then bound up with bandages! The reading was Luke 10:25-37.
Luke 10:25-37 (The Parable of the Good Samaritan)
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
The challenge of hearing the parable of the good Samaritan is that we inevitably think it is ‘just a story for children’. That is partly our fault because we deliberately chose it for our first family service as an easy story for children to engage with. We also re-told it in a straightforward manner as a story with a simple moral: be kind to others. If we were able to sing more at present, we could have had the school assembly hymn that many of us know immediately afterwards:
Cross over the road, my friend,
ask the Lord his strength to lend,
his compassion has no end,
cross over the road.
Yet the reason that the parables Jesus told have proved so enduring and have provoked such fierce interpretative debates is precisely because they are not just ‘stories for children’. They are riddles, conundrums, paradoxes, containing strange characters who often act very oddly.
These stories speak differently to each age that comes to them. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, famously commented that, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan, if he hadn’t had money.” – a remark that seems to speak more to her age than Jesus’s! Coming to this parable fresh today, there is much that perhaps strike us anew, such as the emphasis on touch and crossing the road to help someone. I know that I was not alone in the early days of the pandemic in feeling something like a leper, when I saw a neighbour on the street and he would deliberately cross over the road to maintain social distancing! Today, though, the parable speaks to me particularly of the challenge of making good decisions.
My eyes were opened to fresh interpretations of this passage by a talk I heard a few years ago by the Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine. She very successfully debunked the rather anti-Jewish interpretations that many of us have grown up with in sermons and addresses, which suggested that the story was about Jesus attacking Jewish notions of cleanliness. Often these interpretations relied upon bringing in additional details not mentioned in the story: that the priest was going up to the Temple in Jerusalem and needed to maintain his ritual purity; that the Levite did not want to touch a body he presumed to be dead, and therefore was ritually unclean. A quick bit of exegesis debunked these notions.
Instead, she explained that the key element of the story was surprise. Jesus begins the story with a formula that would have been very familiar to his audience. In more modern parlance, “There was an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman…”, “How many XXXs does it take to change a lightbulb?”; and so on. In this case the familiar trio were a priest, a Levite and a faithful Israelite. In all such stories, the priest and the Levite come out badly, and it is the faithful Israelite – who holds no formal religious position or title – who does the right thing and comes out well of it. When Jesus began this tale, therefore, his audience thought they knew what was coming and it was his shocking replacement of the faithful Israelite with a hated Samaritan that made the story so surprising and memorable.
Having debunked the false assumptions about the motivations of the priest and the Levite, I am left reflecting on what motivated them to act in the way they did, and whether I would have acted differently. Because it’s not a easy world in which they lived and doing the right thing, then as now, is never as simple as the movies often make out. This was a dangerous road and the man lying bleeding was clear evidence that there were ruthless cutthroats around, happy to murder and wound for money. The man was probably dead already. Was it really worth taking the chance of seeing if he were alive, and risk putting yourself in the same boat? Either of the two men were probably the heads of their households with wives and dependents at home, waiting for them. If they were robbed or disabled, then many others would suffer too. If they were killed then their widows could be left destitute – as we know from Jesus’s oft-demonstrated concern for widows – and their children as orphans. Was that really the right decision to make? To put a whole family at peril for the sake of possibly helping one stranger who was probably already dead?
My interpretation of this passage has definitely been affected by the situation we currently find ourselves in London at present owing to the COVID pandemic. Yesterday, our city officially moved into a higher risk category and, as you well know, we have faced further limits on what we can do and with whom. The announcement caused a huge flurry of e-mails as church leaders and congregations tried to decide what was best to do: close our buildings once again or remain open. As Superintendent Minister, I was faced with a barrage of e-mails strongly advocating both options, citing excellent reasons and examples. On the one hand, the call to save lives and protect our NHS seems paramount, and must trump all other concerns. If we can save one life by closing, then surely we must do it. On the other, there are those who are desperately concerned about the impact on mental health that the continued lockdown is having, with many single and elderly people in particular expressing a desperate desire to keep the building open as one of the few places to actually ‘meet’ people during the week. This is not even to consider the spiritual impact of continued closure. I find myself struggling to work out, therefore, who I am in this parable. Am I the Levite, selfishly walking past, ignoring the call to close the church buildings and save lives. Or am I the Samaritan, keeping a lifeline open for desperate people? I know that I will be seen as both whatever happens.
This is one of the reasons why the parables retain their interest and their vigour. They are not simple stories solely for children. They are meant to be debated and argued over, and I pray will continue to be so for many millennia to come. But if we are not to have an easy moral (as we did for the children), then what are we to say about this familiar story? Two things come to mind.
First, the story reminds us that life is not usually made up of easy decisions – especially at the level of national politics. Our leaders – both local and national – are currently wrestling with the greatest crisis the world has probably faced since the Second World War. Soaring death tolls, crippled economies, desperate people. A decision to save lives here and now, may mean the loss of livelihoods for decades to come for others. They are having to weigh peoples’ lives and well-being in the balance. For some, their actions will be seen like those of the Samaritan, while for others, they will be like the priest’s, ignoring their need. Now, more than ever, we are called to pray for our leaders, asking God to give them wisdom and insight. We are called to judge them fairly, to offer support and encouragement where appropriate, as well as being a voice for the voiceless.
Second, as the darkness of winter approaches and the challenges of isolation becomes ever more acute, we are called to proclaim more loudly than ever that we are never truly alone. God seems to appear in many of Jesus’ parables, often as a father or kingly figure, but seems absent here. I believe he is present, though, in the person of the Good Samaritan. God “heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3) and in the person of Jesus Christ, God crossed the road to reach out to all those in desperate need. God chose not to remain aloof from his creation but to walk among us, sharing our pain and our humanity, seeking out the lost and the desperate. Whatever the other truths of this parable, it tells us unconditionally that we are never alone. That God walks beside us, every step of our lives – recognised or unrecognised – and that there is nowhere we can go, where he will not find us, and hold us in his arms of love. I pray that we may be able to bear witness to that truth, and follow his example, this day and always. Amen.